U.S. top court upholds Texas refusal to issue Confederate license plate

The design of a proposed ”Sons of the Confederacy” Texas state license plate is shown in this handout illustration provided by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles March 20, 2015. The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Texas did not infringe on free speech rights…

Reuters/Texas Department of Motor Vehicles/Handout via Reuters

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Texas did not infringe on free speech rights when it rejected a proposed specialty vehicle license plate displaying the Confederate flag, to some an emblem of Southern pride and to others a symbol of racism.

The court ruled on a 5-4 vote that the state did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment free speech guarantee when it turned away the application made by the group Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The state declined to approve the plate with the Confederate flag. The flag in question, a blue cross inlaid with white stars over a red background, was carried by troops for the pro-slavery Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War.

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The court, in an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, said the state’s action did not touch upon free speech rights because messages on state-issued plates are government speech, not private speech.

When a message is government speech, officials have more leeway to determine what messages they want to approve without violating the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment free speech guarantee.

States can generate revenue by allowing outside groups to propose specialty license plates that people then pay a fee to put on their vehicle.

During the oral argument in the case in March, a major concern for some justices was that if the state has no say over what messages to allow, it would pave the way for other potentially offensive messages such as images of Nazi swastikas or statements promoting the Islamist militant group al Qaeda.

The case is Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-144.

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